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Sharpening the Narrative on Diversity in Emergency Management

Charles Sharp leads the Black Emergency Managers Association’s quest for inclusion.

Charles Sharp, CEO of Black Emergency Managers Association
The Black Emergency Managers Association, led by Charles Sharp, (right) encourages diversity in emergency management.
Charles Sharp is CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Black Emergency Managers Association (BEMA). Sharp co-founded the association in 2010 after retiring from the U.S. Air Force Reserve Command as an emergency manager after 24 years.

With the Air Force, Sharp conducted emergency plan development and exercise design and evaluations, as well as served as a lead inspector general with the Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va. He was the first U.S. Air Force member to complete the resident FEMA Incident Command System train-the-trainer course in 2002.

Emergency Management: What led you to become CEO of BEMA?

Charles Sharp: I worked for the National Science Foundation in high school. I was an emergency manager in the military, so I knew a lot of emergency managers. I was restricted during Katrina — we couldn’t just go and show up as military personnel. When the earthquake hit Haiti, I said, “Wait a minute. There’s a problem here. What is it about our communities?” I asked what planning is taking place. As I retired in 2008, a few of us got together and said let’s start an association to look at networking, career opportunities and advancement for African-Americans and other individuals at the federal, county, state and city levels.

It carried over to us forming the Black Emergency Managers Association. Most of the individuals who are in the association work with federal, state, county or city government. There are some restrictions to what they can and cannot say. Being retired, I have no restrictions. I can address issues and be open and honest about what needs to be done.

We’re not just exclusive to African-Americans — we’re inclusive. Anyone can be a member of BEMA. Our mission is to get more disadvantaged people into the profession of emergency management and homeland security.

Inclusion is the main reason we were formed: to ensure that the whole community, everyone in the community, is involved. The African-American community’s participation in the planning and a lot of other areas is sometimes practically zero. That’s one of our initiatives. To get not only the black community but community organizations, faith-based organizations, and the Hispanic and Asian communities involved.

EM: Why are African-Americans and other ethnic groups left out of the profession?

CS: I think it’s a matter of priority. To do the extensive, long-term planning, it’s something a lot of people in ethnic communities don’t plan for, not only in the U.S. but throughout the world.

I talked to a researcher in emergency management looking at urbanization. People within the city limits constantly hear sirens — police, fire, EMS — and to them it’s almost like a constant bombardment of noise, of emergency-type situations. They’re constantly hearing it and that plays a role.

One of the things we push in BEMA is community involvement at the family level and the neighborhood level. Neighbors should get involved in preparedness and understand the vulnerabilities of the community. It takes everybody. One of the things we emphasize is during that time of crisis, the community takes charge. How are we going to survive and be resilient during this time of crisis?

We know that it’s not just left up to our first responders to respond, it’s up to our community to respond. I ask individuals, “Who are the first responders?” It’s the individuals standing in the disaster. Law enforcement and fire are secondary responders. They come and take a leadership role.

You almost have to take a simplistic view — what do they do day to day — and enhance that, provide examples. Understanding their culture and how they live is important. What are some of the things occurring in their lives? What are they preparing for? How do they prepare their kids? It’s almost adding it to day-to-day living and sharing that information. It’s that practical information that will affect their immediate families.

Every year I participate in a Real Men Read program at one of the charter schools, where men of African descent read to students. One of the things I read was something on the history of water and how to apply just one concept so they could take it home to their parents, just to get them to understand the importance of water. I printed out a coloring book on water so they could take it home and share it with their families, enhancing what they’re doing every day so it becomes almost second nature. They may be planning and not really knowing it. Some people bring an umbrella to work with them in the morning. That’s planning.

EM: Are you seeing any progress? Is the profession becoming more diverse?

CS: Yes. It’s a slow process and takes time. We promote within the community at all levels, not just the emergency management level. The community has to buy into what we’re doing. It’s not just us as professionals over here — we want everyone involved. We’re also branching out into other areas to get faith-based organizations involved. They have a different perspective. When you look at those within the faith-based arena, ministers and those leaders are constantly doing crisis management.

EM: How do we improve the inclusion of various groups?

CS: That’s the hard part. Trust in local government. Having individuals that are the same ethnicity come into communities and provide information. How does that community communicate? What are the unofficial forms of communication in that community?

Word of mouth sometimes travels faster than an official letter. Who does the community trust? There’s an unofficial leader in probably every black church, and usually they sit up front in the first pews. And they’re female, they wear a hat and they’re the one the minister listens to. Usually in every organization there’s one unofficial leader who can move things and get things done.

EM: Is it important for African-Americans to fill lead roles?

CS: It is and it isn’t. When you’re interfacing at the operational level, going door to door in communities, it’s good to have some cultural knowledge. The problems we’re having in Baltimore are about cultural knowledge. People perceive things differently based on their culture. I recently did a workshop in the Middle East on cybersecurity, and one of the things that I do even here in the U.S. is let groups know that they are the subject matter experts about their community. I am not; I don’t know their communities. I know D.C., I was born and raised here, but everyone who lives in the community is an expert on that community.

You need a system for disruption in those communities, not only from an emergency management perspective for planning, but from a resiliency perspective to look at the entire system, to give a different view, a different perspective to focus on. “Have you considered this?” This is not only affecting your elderly but the functional needs of individuals. What about the homeless? That’s something a lot of people don’t think about. It’s going to take everybody to rebuild and restructure the community.